Parashat Tazriah: Publicizing a Sin

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R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch succinctly described Tzara’at as a physical manifestation of a spiritual affliction. Whether it affected the home, clothing or body, it was a clear and visual sign that a spiritual cleansing was required – a sin, or sins, had been committed. Sometimes the affliction could be cured quickly, and sometimes the afflicted person would be required to live outside the camp for a certain period of time to become pure again.

But what seems a little fishy is that God would create a system reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Why create a marker that allows the whole neighborhood to know that someone has sinned? We have an obligation a rebuke a sinner, but not to publicize the sins! Couldn’t a system be devised that would be very clear and obvious to the offender, but not result in full-disclosure to other people? Why are we adding potential embarrassment of the sinner to an already bad situation?

To better understand why, we can look in the Gemara in Masechet Arachin that outlines seven different sins that could be the cause for Tzara’at: Lashon Hara, Murder, Swearing Falsely, Illicit Relations, Pride, Theft and Miserliness. The common denominator among all of these is an abuse or neglect of our obligations to one another as human beings.

A person’s Kavod and privacy is taken into consideration for most mitzvoth between a person and God, but when it comes to someone who has mistreated their fellow human being, it must be stopped swiftly and effectively. Even if this might result in the embarrassment of the offender, the Tzara’at is in place to stop the offense and set the sinner on the path to Teshuvah. The risk is too great that others in the community will fall victim to the offender’s hurtful ways.

As we read through this parashah full of elaborate descriptions for dealing with Tzara’at, let’s think about why so much attention is devoted to this one halacha, and take the extra time to be considerate to one another’s feelings and sensitivities.

This Dvar Torah was written for the Mt Sinai Jewish Center Kesher Newsletter.

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My Chanukah Dvar Torah

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I really do wish more people at Mt. Sinai would write divrei Torah for the Kesher bulletin, but I also enjoy getting published on a frequent basis. So here is my short idea on Chanukah. (Thanks for fixing my typo’s and dangling modifiers to @thedailysnowman.)

OK – it’s time for the annual asking of the Chanukah Question: Are we celebrating the miracle of the oil or are we celebrating the miracle of the military victory? There are strong arguments for both sides, of course. On the one hand, a very small amount of oil was able to last much longer than it normally would have. On the other hand, a small ragtag group of Maccabees was able to fight off a larger, stronger and better trained Greek army. How do we decide?

I’m propose that neither of these is the true reason for celebration on Chanukah, but instead the victory and the oil, respectively, act as a prerequisite and a symbol of something much more important. What we are commemorating on Chanukah is the ability of the Jews to go back to living their lives without the fear of persecution, and without the threat of violence and war. They could stop retreating to the forest with wooden tops for clandestine daf yomi shiurim, and would no longer be pressured into publicly sinning to prove their allegiance to a foreign king. They could live freely and live normally.

Granted, the military victory was a necessary step in achieving that freedom. But a military victory is not an end to be celebrated. We do not rejoice in the injury or death of another people; we don’t relish the opportunity to fight, destroy and kill. While we pray to God for safety and security in battle, our true wish is for the war to have never begun in the first place. The victory was miraculous, but it alone would not have merited a holiday to continue for generations.

The supernatural oil is also insufficient to merit a holiday of its own. The environmentalist in me is happy for a Jewish example of how important energy conservation is, but if this was all about a jug of oil that burned longer than it should have, we would not still be lighting Chanukiyot today. The menorah was the most mundane of activities in the temple – it was as basic as turning on the light switch each morning. We focus on the Menorah because it symbolizes a return to the mundane, a return to the normal.

With so much disagreement and fighting in the world, we begin to lose sight of the goal. Life is not about defeating an enemy. Life is not about waiting for that one small miraculous event to inspire us. It’s about the daily ritual and the daily routine. It’s about connecting with family and friends, contributing to society, helping another person, performing a mitzvah, saying a tefilah. The war and the oil are the tangible events that we associate with this return to normalcy. Chanukah is an 8-day week designed to remind us to appreciate the freedom we have to live our lives with purpose and security.

Aaron Steinberg (@Steinberg) is a Mt. Sinai board member, Rena Weisen Book Club Member, and ‘The Knish Box’ Panoply team member. He and Adina have lived in the Heights for 3.5 years.

Not much of a hidden agenda in this dvar Torah – just wanted to emphasize that we don’t celebrate war, and should all be striving to live our lives peacefully. OK – maybe there’s a bit of commentary for ME Peace Process. Sue me.

Happy Chanukah!

Parashat Chayei Sara

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This is the Dvar Torah I wrote for the Kesher this week at Mt Sinai. I’ve added some additional commentary underneath it. 

“I just felt like running.” That’s how Forrest Gump answered when asked why he ran across the country. Running was something he had relied on as a child, and he returned to it as an adult. He wasn’t running to or away from anything. He just ran.

Three very different characters dominate the central story of this parasha: Elazar, Rivkah and Lavan. Elazar is the serious, humble servant focused entirely on finding a wife for Yitzchak. Rivkah is the kind, thoughtful even naive young woman who wants nothing more than to help others and make people happy. Lavan is the calculating, self-preserving brother in search of wealth and power.

The common denominator among all three, however, is that they all run. In the span of only 13 psukim, Elazar runs to meet Rivkah, Rivkah runs to fill the trough and ready her home for Elazar’s arrival, and Lavan runs to greet Elazar. They each posess the trait of zrizut, but the manner and means towards which they implement it is very different.

It’s no chiddush that Lavan is running for the wrong reasons, but is it significant to see that Elazar runs only once while Rivkah runs to fulfill two acts of chessed? Elazar is a servant and shaliach of Avraham’s – he serves his master to the best of his ability, but is ultimately only fulfilling the wishes of another. Rivkah is an individual who is acting on her free will – there is no pressure or external responsibility to take any action. Rivkah is realizing on her own that she has a responsibility to act, and she does so with avidity.

The world we live in presents us with very serious challenges. People suffer both locally and abroad. Injustices and discrimination run rampant, and innocent people are left by the wayside. Violence and harassment are not unknown even in our own communities, and we need to decide how to respond. We have to decide if we’re going to run towards the problems or away from them – will we be the selfless Rivkah, the obedient Elazar, or the selfish Lavan?

It’s easy to ignore the question altogether. We live fast paced lives – many of us on treadmills that keep us moving towards no particular goal and in no particular direction. We must fight the temptation to “just run” like Forrest, and ensure that we aren’t running away from the problems of this world. Let’s commit to following in the steps of Rivkah Imeinu, and run headstrong in support of causes we believe in, and in the direction of chessed, emet and tzedek.

I was inspired to write this dvar torah following the recent clustering of violent attacks and overwhelming harassment against homosexuals. Many religious, political and communal leaders across the country stood up and spoke out against this sort of bullying and attacks. Unfortunately, only a handful of Orthodox leaders took a stand against this universal cause, and even those few took a while to come around.

Homophobia and/or hate for homosexuals is not the only cause worth standing up for. There are many injustices in this world, and we need to stand up for as many of them as possible. Some require the contribution of funds, others require volunteering and action, and a few require nothing more than a statement of solidarity. When the rare opportunity to help someone in need comes in the form of a spoken word, written piece or facebook update, how can we pass it up?

I know this dvar torah wasn’t the most intellectually stimulating, but that wasn’t my goal. I want us all to think about the implications of our actions and damage that can perpetuate due to our inaction. Pick your fight, take your stand, and don’t allow momentum to keep you from standing up for something you believe in.

Torah View on Homosexuality

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“Va’Yivra Elohim et ha’Adam b’Tzalmo, b’Tzelem Elohim bara oto… – And God created Adam in God’s image, in the image of God created him…” (Breishit 2:27)

“Lo tikom, v’lo titor et bnei amecha, v’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha, ani hashem – You shall not take vengeance, or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Vayikra 18:19)

These verses prohibit the most immoral form of behavior known to mankind: the treatment of some people by other people as inferior, second-class, or having fewer rights within the community. This manifests itself in people being ridiculed, discriminated against, excommunicated, and ostracized in their own communities.

The verses above command us to recognize that God created every person in a godly image. We are each unique and special, but what makes us different should be celebrated, not criticized.

When the issue of homosexuals in the Jewish community is raised, many people quickly point to Lev. 18:22 as an easy way to solve the ‘problem’: “personae non gratae, the Torah says that if you cannot change you are an abomination.” The common error people make (aside from a questionably Jewish translation of the word toeva) is to consider homosexuals themselves as being spoken against by the Torah.

The Torah speaks about acts, not people. And many of the acts that the Torah describes  are what we call bein adam l’makom – between people and God.

I cannot imagine the theological struggle a homosexual Orthodox Jew has when they read that verse in the Torah. That is a personal struggle they must each go through, and address in their own way. They may seek a Rabbi’s advice, they may see a psychiatrist for counseling, or they may find comfort in the supportive company of friends and family.

What is of supreme importance is guaranteeing the acceptance and welcoming of homosexual Jews in the Orthodox community. Like any other person who is not living a life in complete observance or compliance with every law in the Torah, we do not demand secrecy and denial in the community.

If we demand that homosexuals in the Orthodox community remain closeted to all but their rabbi, we are asking for a a host of terrible consequences. At best there will be very awkward conversations about dating. At worst we have cases of depression, broken and dishonest marriages, suicidal thoughts and suicidal actions rachmanah litzlan.

We need to create a safe environment for homosexual Jewish in the Orthodox community. This is an unquestionable case of pikuach nefesh.

It is unclear what has caused so many people in our community to not see this reality. Some have suggested that homophobia is rampant in our community, but I have to believe that these are well-intentioned people. Perhaps living in America has led to excessive influence from Right-Wing Christian groups that believe homosexuality is an illness in need of a cure. It is not their fault for being corrupted, but it is our challenge to shed the light on this misconception.

It is not going to be simple, but we must make every effort possible to create an LGBT-safe Jewish community. We will face much opposition on this front, and may be called many disparaging and hateful names. We need to remember the Torah commandment of kol Yisrael Arevim ze ba’ze – all of Israel is bound to one another. We cannot sit by idly while our brothers and sisters are attacked and ostracized.

Through all of this, we must be honest with ourselves, and with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, regardless of communal pressure, considerations or consequences.

The Jewish “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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A friend recently sent me links to a newspaper article and a blog post about the need for greater acceptance and welcoming to homosexual Orthodox Jews within the Modern Orthodox community.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner wrote on Morethodoxy about the distinction between halachot that are moral, and halachot that are simply rules. We generally would not consider someone who doesn’t keep Kosher a bad person – they are simply a sinful person.

We need not worry that welcoming homosexual Jews into our community means we have no moral compass and tomorrow we will welcome adults who commit sexual acts with children (which is not actually one of the sexual sins in the torah) or brothers and sisters who want to marry.

An article published in the YU Commentator anonymously made three specific and reasonable requests from the Yeshiva University community:

  1. For the Rabbis to “recognize our existence, and to take a proactive role in organizing open discussion of the issue of homosexuality.”
  2. Break the taboo of homosexuality by cultivating an “atmosphere of acceptance and open discussion.”
  3. To form a Gay-Straight Alliance on campus to promote an environment that will be comfortable and accepting of gay students.

It’s been too long that homosexuality remains a taboo only within the Orthodox community. We need to stop denying the reality of a significant minority of our community, and strive to be accepting and open to these Jews.

The gay Jew is not living an immoral life. We as a community need to openly discuss how to find an understanding of the Torah’s attitude on homosexual intercourse, but the welcoming of openly gay individuals should not be delayed until that is achieved.

We need to make our synagogues and schools safe places for gay Jews to associate themselves, and exercise the beautiful values of community, unity and togetherness that we have otherwise valued so greatly.

Read Rabbi Shafner’s article here: Is the Torah Moral?

Read the Commentator article here: The Gay Question

The Judges of your Times

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There has been some interesting debate in the comments about the evolving nature of halacha. I wrote a dvar torah two years ago on this subject (for Parashat Shoftim), and I would love to share it with you.

The one-line summary is that the Torah instructs us to consult judges from our own generation who are able to interpret and understand the unique needs of our time.

Check it out for yourself:

“Parashat Shoftim: What do I do?” (Care of: Eimatimes.com)

Parashat Shoftim – False Prophecy

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What does it take to be trustworthy? What does the word even mean? According the Boy Scouts of America (my alma mater?), being trustworthy means telling the truth, being honest, keeping promises and being dependable.

This week’s Torah portion explains the laws of how to deal with a false prophet. If a person claims to be speaking on behalf of God, but what they say will happen does not happen, we can be confident that he or she was not a real prophet.

It seems like a very simple concept. If someone claims to have absolute insider information about what’s going to happen, and they turn out to be wrong, there are only two possibilities. They were either misleading people intentionally, or they were misled themselves. These are clearly not people that we would want to take advice from.

So what was the point of having this section on false prophets? I guess it’s good to know what the punishment is (us Yekke, type-A, Jews like to have things nice and orderly), but aside from that it’s an obvious rule.

I think the Torah is reminding us of the power and value of our words and reputations. When I tell someone that I can be depended on to make something happen, or that the information I’m telling them is reliable, I am putting a lot at stake. Speaking rashly, or without thinking, I can lose my credibility with friends, family, colleagues and strangers very quickly.

In the case of the Bible’s false prophet, the punishment is death (damn!). Today our lives aren’t on the line, but our reputations are still extremely valuable. When we act with integrity, we build value for ourselves. When we become reckless and unreliable, we send ourselves down the self-destructive path of the false prophet.

We have the power to create our personal value, but we can also diminish that value very quickly.